Talk is cheep … messaging the masses via Twitter can become an obsession. (Illustration by iStockphoto)
What happens when pithy, witty missives about your life take over your life? Larry Carlat details his obsession.
It started on june 25, 2008: "testing, testing. Is this thing on?" My first tweet. I began by trying to make a few friends laugh. I had no idea how quickly tweeting would consume me. Before long I was posting 20 to 30 times a day, seven days a week. Some of my posts were funny, some sad, some vaguely existential - "Living happily ever after is killing me" - some flirty, some filthy. I posted daily for three years with only one exception - the day my father-in-law died. Eventually, I attracted about 25,000 followers. Not bad for a non-celebrity.
Soon my entire life revolved around tweeting. I stopped reading, rarely listened to music or watched TV. When I was out with friends, I would duck into the bathroom with my iPhone. I tweeted while driving, between sets of tennis, even at the movies ("I love holding your hand in the dark"). When I wasn't on Twitter, I would compose faux aphorisms that I might use later. I began to talk that way, too. I sounded like a cross between a Barbara Kruger installation and a fortune cookie.
I posted every hour on the hour, day and night, using a website that enabled me to tweet while asleep. It was an obsession. And like most obsessions, no good came of it.
Eight months after I began tweeting, I was laid off from a job in the music business. Looking for work in such a bad economy was brutal. Almost a year went by before I finally landed a job at a men's magazine. Just before I started, I removed my name from my Twitter feed and replaced it with my initials, L. C.
One morning, a few months later, my boss came into my office. "We need to talk about your Twitter," he said.
"Sure," I said. "What about it?"
He told me that someone in HR had stumbled on my tweets and was stunned. (Apparently, the ability to craft crude anatomical jokes isn't what the corporate world looks for in new employees.) My tweets were a clear violation of the company's social-media policy. I had a choice: to delete the account or face termination. Sensing my days were numbered, and being ambivalent about the job anyway, I chose to fall on my sword.
Being unemployed was even harder the second time around. On the other hand, I had more time to tweet. What did I get out of it? Certainly not fortune or fame - on Twitter I was, for the most part, anonymous. But for me, every tweet was a performance. As John Updike wrote, "No act is so private it does not seek applause."
About a month after I left the job, I separated from my wife, and I moved out of our house and into an apartment. One morning, in a fit of pique, I wrote something like, "I would've taken a bullet for my wife, but now I'd rather be the one pulling the trigger." To me, it was just a joke. To my son, it was a disturbing remark about someone we both love. He threatened to stop following me on Twitter. I deleted the tweet immediately.
Around this time, perhaps not coincidentally, my habit started to feel less like a rush and more like a burden. Instead of tweeting to reflect on my life, tweeting had become my life. I began to think seriously about giving it up.
I re-tweeted some of my older posts, telling myself that they would seem new to my now much larger audience. The truth was that the self-imposed pressure to post constantly - and for the post to contain at least a kernel of wit or real feeling - had sapped me. I was burnt out.
Finally I committed "Twittercide". Some of my followers begged me to reconsider, and the flood of affection and good wishes felt a little like the end of It's a Wonderful Life. But I knew it was time to return to mine.
Do I still have the occasional urge to tweet? Do I continue to compose tweets in my head? Do I miss my Twitter friends? Sure. But the immense weight of compulsion has been lifted. Now, before I go to sleep, I turn off my iPhone before I turn out the lights. When I wake up in the morning, my first thought is of making coffee, not of typing, "Someone spiked my coffee with optimism this morning and I spat it right out."
In my next-to-last tweet, I encouraged everyone to follow my son. With luck, he will also know when to stop. He is pretty funny.
He will be even funnier when he gets older and sadder.